a big beautiful mess

What is Moscow?

I’m going to Moscow again tomorrow, for the Fulbright mid-year enrichment seminar. Just one more thing, in addition to the Christmas vacation, to fool me into thinking this is really the halfway point, even though I have twice as much time left as I’ve already done. As of my last visit to Moscow (just a one-night stopover on my way back to America, but it still counts because I left the airport, saw the city, had dinner with some friends), I have been to Moscow more times than any other international city. I’ve still spent more time total in Madrid, but I feel like the frequency of my visits to Moscow is somehow significant. This is one of the more miraculous parts of my life, that I’m able to go to Moscow, the most amazing, beautiful, confusing, mysterious, magical, enigmatic, intimidating city in the world, once a month, almost at a moment’s notice, no big deal.

I’ve been trying to come up with some functional symbolic story to explain my relationship to Moscow, because it would be really useful to me right now to be able to explain my relationship to anything in Russia. My first time in Moscow, I fell in love, and I fell hard and fast, like a victim of organized crime being thrown into a river with cinderblocks chained  to her feet. In my second visit, the mermaids in the bottom of the river found me and used their mer-magic to let me breathe under water. It wasn’t a perfect solution: I was still stuck to the cinder blocks, and water is not my natural habitat, so I can survive, I can breathe, but it’s not comfortable, it’s not natural. On my third visit, I gained the tools to get myself free from the cinder blocks, and I drifted back to the sky, wet and cold and with the spell broken and choking for air and treading water on the unstill surface. And on my fourth visit, a little boat picked me up and took me home.

Except that this doesn’t take into account the coming and going from Moscow. So maybe Moscow is like a birdcage I’m tied to by my heartstrings, and no matter how far I stretch the strings and how far I fly away, I always come back to Moscow. But now I feel I’m stretching the metaphor. I need different stories for each visit. Moscow somehow remains separate from my experience in Russia as a whole, even though Moscow is the reason I’m here. Let me try again.

My first time in Moscow, the city was a miracle, a dream, a song, a giant springy blanket that tossed me up and down and always caught me in an impossibly massive, taut embrace. I was lost and confused but I was delighted and distracted and I was flying.

The second time, I was there for the Fulbright orientation, and Moscow was solid and tall and gray and hard and distant and full of magic fairy dust sprinkled on its labyrinthine floors, breadcrumb trails that led to secret hidden trick cupboards of surprise ignored by the parts of the city that looked like a city. Moscow was like Gormenghast, so big and old that things could live and love and die inside it without ever attracting the attention of the city.

The third time, when I went to pick up my diplomatic pouch, at Thanksgiving, Moscow was a prison, a leave of absence from the front in a cold, dark barracks lit with Christmas lights, full of tunnels burrowed by American ex-pats and larded with turkey and cognac and faded photographs of the things I missed. I was a stowaway hiding out between offensive maneuvers.

The fourth time, Moscow was a springboard, a halfway house, a resting place where it’s impossible to rest, between the front and home, a port where I could resupply but not go ashore, a brief perch between the ground and the mountaintop.

Describing Moscow is not possible. Moscow is a prehistoric beast. Moscow is the reason, the purpose, the root, and the destination, the result, the proof. Moscow is a city and a kingdom and a house and homelessness and a dream and a nightmare all at once. Moscow is a celebrity cocaine orgy, magnificent and excessive and debaucherous and illegal, but you know they’ll get away with it anyway. Moscow is something you admire and aspire to and also fear and recoil from, something you could get lost in forever and forget that there was ever anything else. Moscow is amnesia. Moscow is Neverwhere and Stardust. Moscow is indifferent to you while also providing for all your needs, but for a price. Moscow is the queen ant.

And on the eve of this next journey to Moscow, it occurs to me that this might be the last time I go there during my Fulbright. This might be the last time I go there for a very long time. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.


  1. 17 January 2012    

    Your response to Moscow has always confused me a little. Why not choose some of the normal exotic locales, like Rio or Bangkok? Somewhere warm. Or, go ahead, take a number for one of the bohemian locales. Prague or London or something. But, no, you have to choose what must be the coldest major city in the world. And remember, for most of my life, Moscow was where the enemy lived. Those May Day parade tanks and missiles meant trouble for the free world. We lived in the free world and Moscow was the capital of the second world. Well, my visit promises interest the close it approaches.

    • 22 January 2012    

      I can’t explain why I feel the way I feel about Moscow. But who knows– maybe if I had gone to Rio I would have fallen in love with it instead. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on seeing Moscow and Russia for yourself, now, 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union.

    • Maxim Maxim
      26 January 2012    

      Hi from the coldest major city in the world (i mean Saint-Petersburg).

      You made so many assumptions… “normal exotic locales” :) “Free world” (where people now can’t even share a link without being sued by some corporation), “Enemy livED”. US foreign policy is only about making more enemies and exporting problems as i can see last years. And thank god we have better missiles.

      Зато мы делаем ракеты
      И перекрыли Енисей,
      А также в области балета
      Мы впереди планеты всей


      • 26 January 2012    

        I think most of this comment was meant ironically, Maxim. And I can’t say that I agree with the United States’ foreign policies. I’m not a government official. I’m just a regular person trying to see more of the world than where I grew up. Um, and let’s hope it doesn’t come to missiles.

      • 27 January 2012    

        Hi Maxim,
        I’m sorry my comments hit the wrong note. I can look back on that time growing up now with a lot of distance and, as Ruth suggested, irony. At the time, though, the fear was real and the notion of a nuclear exchange carried a lot of weight. Using the term “free world” now feels strange, and that’s the what I wanted to convey–the strangeness of that time.

  2. 19 January 2012    

    Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

  3. Maxim Maxim
    26 January 2012    

    You should visit Saint-Petersburg and surrounding area. Moscow is so imperfect comparing to it.

    • 26 January 2012    

      I know I need to spend more time in Petersburg. I was there for only four days, and it is beautiful. But I love Moscow best for now.

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